Thursday, January 27, 2005

Mercury Pollution from Coal Burning Power Generation

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If you regularly buy a fishing license, or if you pay attention to reports about the healthfulness of eating certain foods, you’re likely aware that mercury from the environment accumulates in fish, and that eating contaminated fish can expose people to unhealthy levels of this toxic element.

At the levels we’re exposed to by eating fish, mercury poses the greatest danger to fetuses and young children, because it inhibits brain development. The impact is particularly severe for the fetus, which receives a concentrated dose of the mercury in its mother’s blood through the placenta. The impacts of prenatal exposure to mercury, which persist into adolescence and appear to be irreversible, include problems in balance and coordination, and deficits in memory, learning, and attention span.

According to calculations by one researcher at the U.S. EPA, nationally, as many as 630, 000 infants, or one in six babies, are born with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood each year.

One way to address the problem of human exposure to harmful levels of mercury is to advise people about how much or how little mercury contaminated fish they can safely eat. Like other states, Illinois does this through advisories issued by the Department of Public Health, which I quote:
In order to protect the most sensitive populations, pregnant or nursing women, women of childbearing age and children younger than 15 years of age are advised to eat no more than one meal per week of predator fish.
The predator fish referred to in the advisory include lots of favorite sport and food species, notabably bass, walleye, muskie and northern pike.

The Illinois advisory applies to fish taken from all rivers and streams, and all lakes within the state, as well as Lake Michigan. More restrictive advisories apply to certain bodies of water where tests have found higher concentrations of mercury.

Now, if we did not know how mercury got into the environment in the first place, or how to prevent mercury pollution at a reasonable cost, it would be reasonable to begin and end this discussion with fish consumption advisories. But the fact is, we do know how mercury gets into the environment, and we can reduce mercury pollution at a reasonable cost.

The largest single source of mercury emissions in Illinois is coal-fired power generation, which releases some four thousand pounds of mercury into the air annually. We’re currently 5th in national rankings for greatest mercury emissions by utilities.

Unfortunately, mercury emissions from coal-fired power generation are not currently regulated under federal clean air standards, and the U.S. EPA has recently reversed course on a policy that would have required ninety percent cuts in mercury emissions by the year 2008.

This refusal by the U.S. EPA to protect the public interest means that states are going to have to pick up the slack. We ought to be able to do this.

According to a report released in Fall 2004 by the National Wildlife Federation, mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants in Illinois could be reduced by 90%-- using existing technology--at a cost to residential customers of less than a dollar per month.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Illinois River Sediment: Two Environmental Problems, One Highly Innovative Solution

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This is a story of two problems.

Problem number one is the buildup of sediment in parts of the Illinois River system over the past hundred years. In that time some sixty thousand acres of side channels and backwater lakes have become so shallow that they’ve lost almost all value for fish and wildlife, or recreation. These areas were formerly six to eight feet deep, but now average less than eighteen inches, thanks to accumulated sediment.

Problem number two: large expanses of land that have been degraded by various past uses—including strip mines, former industrial sites, and landfills—that need to be covered with fertile soil before they can again be useful for people or wildlife.

Enter John Marlin, senior scientist at the Waste Management Research Center, a non-regulatory service organization affiliated with the University of Illinois, and a division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In cooperation with numerous others, including Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, Congressman Ray LaHood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Illinois EPA, and the City of Chicago, Marlin has pursued a plan that addresses both issues. His idea--move the soil from where it’s a problem to where it’s a solution, transporting it on the river in barges.

Of course there were questions to be answered before anyone began loading soil. Chief among these was whether Illinois River sediment was suitable as a substitute for topsoil from other sources. Greenhouse experiments and field studies conducted by UIUC soil scientist Robert Darmody and colleagues confirmed that sediment excavated from the river was highly fertile, and that it possessed physical properties similar to those of native Illinois topsoil. These findings are not surprising since most of the sediment in Illinois waterways is soil that has eroded from agricultural fields.

Other studies determined that levels of chemical contaminants in the river sediment were acceptable for the types of redevelopment projects that Marlin and others envisioned.

After smaller trials in 2002 and 2003, the idea of using excavated sediment to redevelop degraded landscapes, or mud-to-parks, as it came to be called, was tested on a larger scale last summer. More than a hundred thousand tons of sediment was dredged from the Illinois River at Peoria, loaded onto barges, and shipped up upriver to a former U.S. Steel facility on Chicago’s south side, a slag-covered site on the Lake Michigan shore devoid of topsoil. There the excavated sediment was unloaded and spread atop the slag, covering seventeen acres to a depth of two to three feet. The site was later planted with native grasses and should begin to look like a natural area by summer 2005.

As of now, prospects for the future of the mud-to-parks idea look quite good. There’s no shortage of sediment to be removed from the Illinois River, and there are sites that material could reach by barge all the way from northwestern Indiana to New Orleans.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

105th Audubon Christmas Bird Count

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Just before dawn last December 17th, I met up with some of our area’s most expert and energetic birders at Clinton Lake, to take part in the world's longest-running citizen science effort, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman conceived of it as an alternative to the earlier tradition of the holiday “side hunt,” in which teams competed to see who could shoot the greatest quantity of birds in a day.

Twenty-seven people participated in that first count, and they tallied ninety species of birds. Recent years have seen upwards of fifty thousand people participating, species counts of more than six hundred, and total numbers of birds around seventy-five million.

According to the national Audubon society, the primary objective of the Christmas Bird Count is “to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations across the Western Hemisphere.” When results from the count are combined with other measures, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey they can help us see how bird populations have changed over the past hundred years.

In conducting the count, volunteers follow specific routes through a designated fifteen-mile diameter circle, making note of every bird they see or hear for as much of the day as possible. The idea is to record not only how many species are observed, but roughly how many individuals of each species are present on the count route that day.

The Clinton Lake count that I was on was started in 1987 by Myrna Deaton, who still coordinates it, and who termed this year’s count the “most boring” ever. The seventy-five species of birds we observed that day set a record low, and numbers of many species, especially waterfowl and sparrows, were down from previous years.

That said, we did see some interesting birds. During my hours with the count my team spotted greater white-fronted geese, pine siskins, a brown creeper, wild turkey, and a barred owl. The most notable sighting, which occurred ten minutes after I left, was a tree swallow, a first for the Clinton Lake count. This is a bird we would expect to see during the breeding season, but which was probably too far north for his own good in the third week of December.

There are a number of other Christmas Bird Count circles in our area in addition to the Clinton Lake count, including a Champaign County circle that encompasses most of Urbana, and a Middle Fork circle that includes Lake Vermillion and the state and county natural areas along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.

This year the Champaign County circle tallied fifty-seven species of birds, with the highlight being eighty-eight American pipits, a peregrine falcon, and two long-eared owls.

Nobody I spoke with regarding this year’s count was more enthusiastic than Steve Bailey, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, who heads up the Middle Fork Count. Despite taking place in the worst weather possible—last Wednesday’s all day rain that turned to ice—the Middle Fork count turned up fifty-eight species of birds, including five species of owls, a pair of bald eagles, and a trumpeter swan.

If the idea of joining one of these counts next year appeals to you, you can make contact with local coordinators through the Champaign County Audubon Society, or the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count web pages.

Until then, you’ve got eleven good months to brush up on your bird identification skills.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Busey Woods Boardwalk

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There are many reasons not to get outdoors at this time of year: short days, cool temperatures, wind, rain, you name it. But the rewards of an excursion into the woods do not disappear with the departure of agreeable weather. And thanks to the recent completion of a half-mile long boardwalk, you can now enjoy Busey Woods in Urbana without even getting your feet muddy.

On the chance you’re not familiar with it, Busey Woods is a fifty-nine-acre natural area adjacent to the Anita Purves Nature Center just north of Crystal Lake Park. It’s a remnant of what was called the Big Grove, ten square miles of forest that stood in a sea of tallgrass prairie before the settlement of Champaign County by European Americans.

Busey Woods is notable for its mature oak and hickory trees, as well as the vernal pools that mark the former streambed of the Saline Branch, the stream which now runs through a straightened channel along the eastern edge of the woods. Had it not been for the efforts of local citizens, Busey woods would have been destroyed to make way for industrial development in the 1960s.

Given the scarcity of natural areas in east central Illinois, Busey Woods is an important home for wildlife, from smallmouth salamanders that breed in the pools, to red fox, deer, owls, and other forest birds. It is also an essential stopover and excellent spot for birdwatching during spring and fall migrations.

According to Derek Liebert, Natural Areas Coordinator for the Urbana Park District, the primary motive for the boardwalk was to provide increased access to the woods. Park District personnel anticipate that the boardwalk will make the woods accessible to several new groups of users, including people with physical restrictions, parents with children in strollers, and the like.

They also anticipate that the boardwalk, which is visible from the adjacent road, will prompt people who might have just driven by before to recognize the woods as a public natural area.

The boardwalk also compensates for the wet nature of the woods, especially the vernal pools. After a significant rainfall, particularly in the spring when the Nature Center conducts large numbers of school programs, these ponds breach their banks and flood large portions of the woods.

The boardwalk itself is constructed of non-arsenic treated white pine and features three pop-out overlook areas with benches. These pop-outs will be incorporated into the many environmental programs that are conducted in the woods. During one such program, for example, children use dip nets to sample the diverse aquatic communities of the north pond.

The park district is now working with Taylor Studios of Rantoul to design interpretive panels to be stationed along the boardwalk next spring. These panels will call attention to seasonal changes, provide history, explain management practices, and introduce ecological concepts.

The park district is also currently restoring, planting, and seeding the few areas that were adversely impacted during boardwalk construction. Volunteers interested in helping out with such restoration projects are encouraged to contact the Anita Purves Nature Center to sign up for one of the regularly scheduled workdays.